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The Medal of Honor

medal of honor on a blue ribbon with white stars
The Medal of Honor. Photo by Gerald Blankenship

The Medal of Honor was presented September 19, 1968, to First Sergeant David H. McNerney June 2, 1931- October 10, 2010.

20c Medal of Honor stamp
The Medal of Honor stamp was issued in 1983.

As our nation first began its fight for freedom, George Washington understood the significance of acknowledging meritorious actions in combat. However, it was Abraham Lincoln on July 12, 1862, who signed statute 10 U.S.C. 3741 authorizing the first Medal of Honor to “be presented, in the name of Congress, to such non-commissioned officers and privates as shall most distinguish themselves by their gallantry in action.”

The Navy with Marines and Coast Guard, the Army, and the Air Force would eventually each have their own Medal of Honor. In 1896 legislation established a unique suspension ribbon for the Medal of Honor, in 1897 names of potential recipients needed to be submitted by a witness with sworn testimony to the heroic deed, and in 1904 a ring of laurel leaves was added around the Army’s inverted star with a new blue ribbon and 13 stars. 1906 revisions specified that there be an impressive ceremony in Washington, D.C., whenever it is possible.

As our nation first began its fight for freedom, George Washington understood the significance of acknowledging meritorious actions in combat. However, it was Abraham Lincoln on July 12, 1862, who signed statute 10 U.S.C. 3741 authorizing the first Medal of Honor to “be presented, in the name of Congress, to such non-commissioned officers and privates as shall most distinguish themselves by their gallantry in action.”

First Sergeant David H. McNerney in Vietnam 1966
First Sergeant David H. McNerney in Vietnam 1966. Photo by Ken Mayberry.

The Navy with Marines and Coast Guard, the Army, and the Air Force would eventually each have their own Medal of Honor. In 1896 legislation established a unique suspension ribbon for the Medal of Honor, in 1897 names of potential recipients needed to be submitted by a witness with sworn testimony to the heroic deed, and in 1904 a ring of laurel leaves was added around the Army’s inverted star with a new blue ribbon and 13 stars. 1906 revisions specified that there be an impressive ceremony in Washington, D.C., whenever it is possible.

World War I brought further substantive definition for the Army Medal of Honor. It was carefully spelled out “That the President is authorized to present, in the name of the Congress, a Medal of Honor only to each person who, while an officer or enlisted man of the Army, shall hereafter, in action involving actual conflict with an enemy, distinguish himself conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty.”

The Medal of Honor is the highest United States Military award, recognizing uncommon valor. The diversity among the more than 3,400 Medal of Honor recipients is hardly surprising, but each chose, at one pivotal moment in combat, to commit his life beyond the call of duty.

This Medal of Honor recognizes First Sergeant David H. McNerney, one of 2,800,000 uniformed members of the United States Military who served in Vietnam and one of only 246 men who also received this recognition.

David H. McNerney was born in Lowell, Massachusetts in 1931 and settled in Houston, Texas. He grew up with a family tradition of military service and quickly learned the value of community service with his dad’s leadership in Boy Scout Troop #505. After graduating from St. Thomas High School, McNerney enlisted in the Navy in 1949 and was quickly deployed to Korea.  Upon returning home, he planned to use the GI Bill to continue his education but he stopped to talk with an Army recruiter on the way to class. Soon he was at Fort Bliss, Texas, volunteering for one of the early expeditionary forces in Vietnam. After two tours of duty in Vietnam he was assigned to train recruits at Fort Lewis, Washington.

33c Vietnam War stamp with a soldier and helicopter and 33c Vietnam Veterans Memorial stamp
The Vietnam War stamp was issued in 1999. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial stamp was issued in 2000.

When his unit received orders for Vietnam, he volunteered to accompany them. “After all those months they belonged to me—I felt responsible for them.” On March 22, 1967, near Polei Doc, near the Cambodian border, First Sergeant David H. McNerney of Company A, 1st Battalion, 8th Infantry Regiment of the 4th Infantry Division, was “just doing my job.” That’s how he would describe the battle that took place that day, but on this day his job meant surviving an ambush that involved extremely close in combat. All officers were killed save one who was badly wounded. Although significantly outnumbered and seriously wounded from a grenade that landed next to him, McNerney assumed command. He counted 22 of his soldiers dead and was determined to do his part to keep the rest of his men alive. McNerney succeeded, through a series of daring actions that evacuated his 43 wounded and preserved his remaining 43 soldiers. The events that occurred that day resulted in First Sergeant McNerney being summoned to the White House where his courageously bold actions of heroism and leadership were honored in a formal ceremony. President Lyndon B. Johnson expressed his appreciation to a fellow Texan and his great gratitude for First Sergeant McNerney’s answer to the challenge of the battle in the “Valley of Tears” with a willingness and ability to endure hardship in service to his country.

David McNerney with rare 1933 Balbo covers and other material from the vault
David H. McNerney visited the Smithsonian National Postal Museum in Washington, DC, in 2010, to view rare 1933 Balbo covers and other material from the vault. Photo by May Day Taylor.

After volunteering and serving a fourth tour of duty in Vietnam, First Sergeant McNerney retired with twenty years of military service. He then joined the United States Customs Service, where he spent 25 distinguished years of service before retiring in 1995. After his second retirement he gave much of his time to his community and veterans organizations that also included speaking with school children about military service and service to the country. He continued his involvement with the JROTC and the Crosby, Texas, American Legion Post 658.

During his life, David McNerney was an avid stamp collector as well as a sailor and soldier, a First Sergeant, a Medal of Honor recipient, husband, uncle to 16 nieces and nephews, and a community volunteer. His interest in earning his Boy Scout Stamp Merit Badge had grown from a hobby to a passion. His first collection, primarily of American stamps, was sold to help purchase his first home. He resumed stamp collecting as a world-wide collector. While he went where the military sent him, those experiences were enlarged through his stamp collection. In many ways he felt he accompanied the service men and women in every battle in the American experience through his extensive stamp collection and his collateral reading. McNerney was a life-long learner through his stamps and said he liked all the stamps he ever met.

“Steadfast and Loyal”

The Medal of Honor is now on display in the new William H. Gross Gallery (opened September 2013) at the Smithsonian's National Postal Museum with First Sergeant David H. McNerney’s photo and a selection of his stamps from Korea and Vietnam.

To Learn More

The Medal of Honor Citation — United States Army
www.history.army.mil/moh.html


Portraits of Valor: Beyond the Call of Duty, 2008
Author, Peter Collier

Documentary film 2010, Honor in the Valley of Tears,
Director: Eric S. Dow
Producer: John A. Ponsoll
www.youtu.be/iwEzOWo8w4E


Congressional Medal of Honor Society
www.cmohs.org


Preserving the History of Recipients of the Medal of Honor
www.HomeofHeroes.com


Medal of Honor Host City Program
http://www.medalofhonorhostcity.com/

Stamps related to the Medal of Honor

Also look for Buffalo Bill CodyTeddy Roosevelt,
Douglas MacArthurEddie RickenbackerJohn Basilone,
Audie MurphyDaniel J. DalyJohn McCloyHispanic Americans
and Dr. Mary Walker all depicted on U.S. stamps.

Compiled by May Day Taylor
September 2012